We are living in unprecedented times. COVID-19 has swept throughout the world, and governments are taking drastic measures to stop the spread in an attempt to save lives. Schools have been closed, those able to are working from home, the vulnerable are completely self-isolating and it’s a worrying time for many. 

Corona Virus is the top headline wherever you look. However, there is one news nugget that has really caught everyone’s attention, and its Toilet Roll Gate. Yes, we have bought all of the toilet roll. COVID-19 is an infectious disease that (in most cases) causes mild respiratory illness, and the spread can be slowed if we all wash our hands adequately. It does not affect your bowel movements in any way, yet toilet roll has become the hottest commodity on the planet. 

WHY!? We all ask! All of us sensible people who completely understand that toilet roll is not going to save us from this pandemic. It’s easy to feel angry about the empty shelves. Furious at the selfish villains who have come in and stolen all of our precious loo paper. Yes, there are some people being selfish and hoarding more than they need (please, don’t be that guy!). However, not everyone who has bought an extra toilet roll or picked up two boxes of pasta instead of one in their weekly shop is a monster.

The shelves haven’t only been emptied by the greedy, selfish, hoarders. Sales of these particular products have increased because we are ALL buying them, and we can’t all be monsters. We are slaves to our reptilian brains, and our buying behaviours reflect as much.

So, I’d like to shine some light on these factors that are influencing our behaviour. We’ve all got enough to worry about at the moment, without the additional fear that we’re surrounded by idiots and toilet roll fanatics. 

The human brain is a powerful organ constantly processing enormous amounts of information. However, we don’t have the capacity to process all of this information consciously so our brain will often take shortcuts. This means we follow our instincts, we behave irrationally, and we buy toilet roll we don’t need. There are some specific shortcuts that our brains are making during #ToiletRollGate, and I believe the key players are ‘Social Proof’, ‘Availability Bias’, and ‘The Scarcity Effect’.

1 – Social Proof

Human beings are social creatures and we generally like to follow the crowd. Our social nature means we look for cues in each other’s behaviour about what is safe, or what is dangerous. As a caveman, copying your neighbour’s behaviour could mean that you don’t eat the poisonous berry, or you choose the best tool to catch a wild animal with. These days, social proof could still mean you enjoy a better meal, because surely the food will always be better in the restaurant that is full, than in the one next door which is empty. 

When the media picks up the story of the increase in sale of toilet rolls, we can very quickly see what everyone else is buying. We are heard animals, we act the way everyone else is acting. Especially in these worrying times, we take our cue from what others around us are doing, and we buy some toilet roll too. 

Interestingly, the “don’t buy all the toilet roll” memes all over social media don’t seem to have had a strong counteracting influence on toilet roll sales. I’m sure you have also had numerous conversations with your friends and colleagues about how stupid and ridiculous all of the toilet roll panic buying is. However, our brain is using Social Proof as a shortcut so we don’t have to use rational processing. Evidence of everybody else’s purchasing habits has already entered our subconscious, so we’re behaving irrationally.

2 – Availability Heuristic

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how much toilet roll is sold in the UK every day. I couldn’t tell you what a regular amount of toilet roll per household is, and I don’t know how often everyone buys more toilet roll. 

If any of questions were to come up in a pub quiz (admittedly, this would be a weird pub quiz) I would probably use the Availability Heuristic to work out the answer. This means I would recall any examples I have from my own life, and the more easily I can thinking of examples of purchasing toilet rolls, the more regularly I will presume it happens. 

Early on in the COVID-19 media landscape, toilet roll started getting discussed. All news outlets were posting updates about people buying toilet roll, accompanied with helpful pictures of empty shelves. It was near impossible to avoid, the news was out, toilet roll was disappearing quickly. 

Now if you ask people “How often is every one buying toilet roll”, there are many examples that come to mind. Everyone can picture the empty supermarket shelf, from the latest article that they read. We now assume toilet roll is being purchased in obscene quantities, combine this with our automatic response to copy other’s behaviour, and we want to buy more toilet roll too. This then becomes a cycle of; people buy toilet roll, media reports people buying toilet roll, people buy MORE toilet roll, media reports EVEN MORE sales of toilet roll, and so on and so on.

3 – The Scarcity Heuristic

Toilet roll has become considerably more valuable over the past few weeks, even though the product has not changed at all. The higher value perception isn’t based on additional ply, soft quilting, or a pleasant aloe vera scent. It is more valuable because there is less of it. Just like diamonds are more valuable than rubies and sapphires, because there are less of them in the world.

If something is rare, or in low supply, we believe it is worth more. Marketers will often use tactics to make things seem like they are in low supply, or highly exclusive to beginin with. “26 others are looking at the exact same dates and the same hotel as you! Right now!” – sound familiar?

There aren’t any tactics being used to create an illusion of scarcity, our behaviour is causing genuine scarcity. Then this lack of toilet roll is being plastered all over the news, we’re seeing empty shelves reported and if we happen upon a rare toilet roll still available in a supermarket, it seems to shimmer like a diamond before we quickly pop it in our trolley.

A combination of these three mental shortcuts can lead to some seriously irrational behaviour. We want to behave the way everyone else does, we are seeing other people on the news buying lots of toilet roll, and toilet roll has become a valuable commodity. Hopefully this rational explanation of our irrational behaviour gives us one less thing to be angry about.

This is a time when we are seeing people coming together to help each other in amazing ways. Society is a wonderful thing when we’re all kind to each other, and share our toilet roll.

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